Another Gulf hack; immunity request; activist’s torture case dismissed

UAE accuses Al Jazeera of hindering resolution to Gulf crisis

Dozens of journalists for Qatar-based Al Jazeera network were hacked by spyware sold by Israel’s NSO Group in attacks allegedly ordered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, researchers say.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab on Sunday published a technical report examining the campaign that exploited a vulnerability in Apple’s iPhone devices that used a “zero click” technique, meaning targets would not have had to click on a link for their smartphones to be infected with the spyware.

Apple appears to have fixed the vulnerability in its iOS 14 mobile operating system. “Given the global reach of NSO Group’s customer base and the apparent vulnerability of almost all iPhone devices prior to the iOS 14 update, we suspect that the infections that we observed were a miniscule fraction of the total attacks leveraging this exploit,” the researchers said.

One of the targeted journalists identified by the report is Tamer Almisshal, the lead reporter of an investigative documentary series on the channel. An episode about the hack featuring the researchers and their work was aired on the same day the report was released. Although the report points fingers at both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the episode aired on Al Jazeera appeared far more focused on the Emirates than the kingdom.

The Qataris are said to view the UAE as blocking the path to resolving the Gulf crisis by taking a harder line than their larger neighbour. The way the hacking story was framed on Al Jazeera certainly fits that narrative. The Emiratis took note and felt compelled to respond:

“The political and social climates in the Arabian Gulf looks towards ending the Qatar crisis and seeking the best way to guarantee Doha’s commitment to any agreement that promises benefits for the region, but Qatari media outlets seem determined to undermine any agreement,” UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Twitter. “A strange and inexplicable phenomenon.”

In another tweet, UAE political commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said: “whoever runs [Al Jazeera] behind the scenes does not seem to be in a conciliatory mood.”

Shutting down Al Jazeera was one of the demands Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Bahrain and Egypt, made when they announced their boycott of Qatar in 2017. It is unclear how the latest hacking accusations would affect progress to reach a resolution to the Gulf crisis as GCC leaders prepare to meet in Riyadh next month.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said earlier today that a breakthrough had been reached two weeks ago for a framework to resolve the dispute, adding that talks have been held with Saudi Arabia who represents the other countries involved. “There are no roadblocks on the political level in the talks over the crisis,” he said during a visit to Moscow. “As for any roadblocks that might be pushed by other parties, we in Qatar try to ignore them.”

Trump administration considers Saudi immunity request

The Washington Post reports:

The U.S. government is weighing a request to declare Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman immune from a federal lawsuit accusing him of targeting for assassination a former top intelligence officer who could disclose damaging secrets about the prince’s ascent to power, according to legal documents related to the case.

The Saudi government has asked that the prince be shielded from liability in response to a complaint brought by Saad Aljabri, a former Saudi counterterrorism leader and longtime U.S. intelligence ally now living in exile in Canada.

The State Department will consider this request by the Saudi government before issuing a recommendation of immunity to the Department of Justice. If the DOJ accepts the recommendation, it usually becomes binding to the court. Jabri’s family have warned that granting immunity to the heir apparent would amount to giving permission to carry out assassinations. “Lack of accountability is one thing, but allowing impunity through immunity is like issuing a license to kill,” Jabri’s son Khaled said.

The newspaper notes that a “decision can come quickly, such as for a head of state, or take months or years, depending on the circumstances and complexity of a case, legal analysts say.” The Saudis are obviously hoping for a quick and favourable one before Trump leaves the White House. As I wrote earlier this week, Biden’s promise to reassess US-Saudi relations could usher a rocky period, and the kingdom would be keen to keep any disruption to a minimum.

Saudi court dismisses activist’s torture lawsuit

In Riyadh, the Criminal Court has dismissed a complaint by prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul that she was tortured in detention, citing a lack of evidence, according to local media reports.

The public prosecution has investigated the torture allegations, reviewed medical reports and asked the governmental Human Rights Commission for a report into al-Hathloul’s claims after her father complained to the commission which did not find that the activist had been tortured. The public prosecution also said it had reviewed CCTV footage from al-Hathloul’s hunger strike as well as testimony from prison officials and “dozens of inmates”.

Local media reported late Monday night that the public prosecution concluded that al-Hathloul’s claims were based solely on her own statements and that she has not accused specific individuals because she was allegedly blindfolded and could not identify her interrogators. In other words, every claim al-Hathloul made about her mistreatment has been rejected: being transferred from Jeddah’s Dhahban prison to a secret location, being tortured and sexually harassed, and being denied sleep during her recent hunger strike.

Saudi officials have denied that al-Hathloul and other activists are held over their human rights work and insist the detentions are related to carrying out intelligence activities and receiving financial support from hostile countries. The judge presiding over the case has reportedly weighed the documents provided by the public prosecution against al-Hathloul’s word that she has been tortured then decided to dismiss the case in a preliminary ruling. Her family said the activist was not given a copy of the public prosecution’s report and a request for more time to respond was denied.

The family, who believe that investigating torture claims should be conducted by a neutral party and not the public prosecution or other government-related entities, also said they have requested access to CCTV footage from the time period corresponding to the torture claims in her early months of detention after she was arrested in May 2018. They were told the recordings are unavailable because they are automatically deleted after 40 days.

Al-Hathloul can appeal the sentence within 30 days as her other trial at the Specialised Criminal Court is expected to resume later this week. 

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